By Margit Jochmann
Have you ever found yourself in a meeting where everyone present dives right into discussing the subject matter at hand, without introducing the new folks in the room? Or, have been part of a project team where some members are clearly experts in a field, but for others you are not quite sure how they relate to the mission at hand? Then you, or your team, may be missing out on some of the valuable knowledge available at your fingertips or may take longer to find the solution needed.
Teams are typically comprised of a diverse set of team members, with different expertise, skills and specialized domains. For example, a project team developing a new IT automation platform may include staff with project management background, various engineering disciplines, business representatives, user representatives, etc. – all together representing a wealth of knowledge available to the team to effectively design and deliver a solution. However, making use of this knowledge pool and its benefits requires knowing who knows what and who is good at what.
So, How Do You Tap Into Your Team’s Knowledge?
The underlying mechanism: In 1985, Wegner introduced a concept that is an important mechanism to understand in this context – “transactive memory.” He discovered that people in close relationships are much better and faster at remembering certain information and solving certain tasks than two people that do not know each other – due to a division of labor and specialization taking place over time. This happens because we are aware of our mental strengths and limits, and we are good at understanding the abilities of others. Hang around a workmate long enough and you begin to realize that while you are terrible at remembering your corporate meeting schedule, or how long a kilometer is relative to a mile, they are great at it. You begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering “that stuff” to them, treating them like a notepad or encyclopedia.
Shared remembering: In a transactive memory system, we share the work of remembering, which makes us collectively smarter and expands our ability to understand the world around us. Each person in a team doesn’t need to remember everything the team needs to know, remembering who knows what and how to access that information is what matters. Thus, a transactive memory system can provide teams with more and better knowledge than any individual could access on his or her own.
Teams Benefitting Most
- Requiring innovation
- Involving diverse sets of knowledge
- Requiring efficient coordination between team members
… all features typical for many project teams.
Transactive memory may not be helpful for all kinds of teams or work though, for example, when little specialization is required.
Developing a Strong Transactive Memory System
Communication and interaction. Team members learn about each other’s expertise through sharing knowledge and seeking information from others.
- How to share: Opportunities for “who did what” type conversations and getting to know each other can range from water cooler encounters to targeted team-building sessions. At a minimum, take a few minutes to introduce each other when new team members join.
- What to share: Consider different kinds of knowledge beneficial for sharing. This can include “hard” aspects such as education, certifications, specialized domains etc., as well as “softer” aspects such as personal strengths or preferences.
Joint training on the task supports the development of transactive memory. The interactions taking place during joint training allow for learning about team members’ skills or the lack of knowledge in certain areas and help to assess the accuracy and reliability of this information.
Sharing relevant documentation. While face-to-face interaction is most effective, transactive memory can also be fostered without interaction, for example, by sharing documentation on task-relevant information regarding team members’ knowledge, skills, and domains of expertise.
Contributing to Team Success
A strong transactive memory system within a team contributes to its success, both at a task and (inter)personal level, through providing:
- Quick access to large amounts of knowledge
- Increased specialization – division of responsibility on different kinds of knowledge allows team members to broaden their own knowledge in a specific area, thus allowing for more innovation
- Improved decision making processes
- Increased satisfaction and sense of identification within the team, for example, by better alignment between task assignments and qualifications
- Increased coordination and efficiency – the shared understanding regarding interpersonal relations and different expertise domains, enables members to better predict and anticipate how others would behave, leading to well-coordinated and efficient interactions
So, Are You Making the Most of Your Team’s Knowledge? Do You Know Who Your Knowledge Experts Are?
 Introduced by Wegner, Giuliano, and Hertel (1985) and Wegner (1986)